Piera Aiello: the ‘ghost lady’ taking on the Sicilian mafia

Piera was born in Partanna, a town situated in south-western province of Trapani in Southern Italy. Her life was just like any other girl until the age 14 when she would meet a boy called Nicolò. Nicolò was son of Vito Atria, a mafia boss local to the area of Partanna, and one day decided that Piera was to be wedded to his son. At only 18, in a tiny baroque church of Madonna delle Grazie, Piera was married to Nicolò. Shortly after their wedding, Don Vito was found dead in a local vineyard. Heroin had made its way into the streets of Partanna and the latest, high-ranking members of the Sicilian mafia had decided that there was vested interest in removing older members (such as Vito) who refused to take part in the business. Nicolò, who was evidently devastated, vowed to avenge his father’s death by finding those who took his father away from him and killing them.

In the years that followed, Piera worked away her days in a local pizzeria making sweets in a café owned by Nicolò. Though business was good, their marriage was not. Piera would take the pill as she had no desire to bear Nicolò’s child and when he got news of this, he would beat her. Eventually, Piera fell pregnant and gave birth to a girl called Vita (or “Life”).

Fast forward to 24th June 1991, when Nicolò was too found executed by the mafia in their home in Partanna. He had been shot in the head, the arm and the abdomen. In an exclusive interview with the Guardian Piera recalls the moment she walked into the kitchen to see her husband dead, “My face was covered in my husband’s blood. I despised Nicolò, but I felt pity for him. He was just a boy, 27 years old, and they killed him like an animal”. It was then when Piera decided that she wanted to name her husband’s killers – a decision that would change the trajectory of her life forever.

Along with Rita Atria, Nicolò’s sister, they went to meet district attorney Paolo Borsellino who became an important figure to the two girls during their time of confession and interrogation in police stations. It goes without saying that being a police informant against the mafia would have very grave consequences for both Piera and Rita, who was related by blood to the mafioso: “We’d spend our days in police stations. Borsellino would often come and see us. We were afraid. We knew that the bosses were already plotting our deaths”. Although Rita’s and Aiello’s testimonies had led to the arrest of dozens of mafioso, their decision to testify had severe consequences. Borsellino was found assassinated by the mafia in a car bomb in Via D’Amelio in Palermo. One week later, Rita – who had lost her father, her brother and Borsellino – committed suicide by jumping off an apartment complex.

Having lost another two people in her life, Piera moved to Northern Italy, changed her name and began working as a babysitter, re-married and created a new life for herself. For several years, her true identity remained hidden, even from her two daughters. One day, Piera was asked to run for parliament in upcoming elections and was convinced by her daughter to do so. During her campaign, her face remained covered by a veil as a way of protecting herself and avoiding witness identification – leading her to be dubbed the “ghost lady”. On 13th June 2018, almost thirty years after she began hiding her identity, Piera revealed her face and along with it, her identity as a police informant. Today, Piera Aiello is a politician serving as a member of parliament known for her strong stand against the Sicilian Mafia. She continues to be a forceful voice in the anti-mafia movement and beyond this, an inspiring person with a remarkable life story.

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